Is Media Campaigning for ANC and COPE?: Election Report for Week Ending 28 March 2009

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Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) has monitored every democratic election in South Africa. This year we are doing the same, providing daily and weekly reports on media coverage of election news, as well as MMA’s Election Media Ratings

Each weekly report provides more in depth analysis of key issues than the daily reports, drawing from data that has been captured from our broad monitoring of national media over the past week. The media monitored includes radio, TV and print, commercial and public. (For a full list of media being monitored please see the methodology section on our website.) In this way, the analysis is based on more systematic and standardised monitoring, and is able to make comparisons between a large variety of media and also to the national average on coverage across various issues.

MMA employs an innovative human rights-based framework for our monitoring methodologies.  During elections, our methodology is particularly concerned with the broader role for media to hold government to account on behalf of citizens. While media, in particular commercial media, do not sign a formal contract stating that they endorse and will fulfil this role, this expectation must be recognised and honoured in support of the argument for a free and plural media.

Where a democratic government does not provide easily accessible and complete information on government performance to the public so that they are enabled to hold their elected representatives to account, and in most countries around the world this is the case, citizens must get this information from other sources, and the most logical source and expertise for this is the media.

As such, the monitoring process captures pertinent information relating to political participation, including information around representation of gender, race and other core human rights issues. Key to media coverage during an election period, the monitoring also addresses the fair and equitable treatment of political parties, and the quality of information provided.

Our first weekly report covers the period 14/03/2009 to 23/03/2009, it focuses on a key issue for this year’s elections coverage, political party coverage.

MMA’s monitoring methodology deconstructs election coverage down to documenting any political party sourced in a news story. This could be through a party member speaking directly to a reporter or presenting at a campaign rally, or when a party member or party is discussed in an item. Political party coverage in this sense then refers to the level (number or percentage) of media attention that a party receives via these mechanisms.

Political Party Coverage

Media Monitoring Africa – Elections 2009

Party Ave %
Political Parties (general) 2%
Africa Muslim Party – AMP 1%
African Christian Democratic Party – ACDP 1%
African National Congress – ANC 41%
Alliance For Democracy and Prosperity – ADP 0%
Azanian People’s Organisation – Azapo 2%
Christian Democratic Party – CDP 0%
Congress Of The People – Cope 20%
Democratic Alliance/Demokratiese Alliansie – DA 8%
Dikwankwetla Party Of South Africa – DPSA 0%
Independent Democrats – ID 3%
Inkatha Freedom Party – IFP 6%
Izwi Lethu 0%
Keep It Straight And Simple – Kiss 0%
Labour Party Of South Africa – L.P 0%
Minority Front – MF 1%
National Alliance – N A 0%
National Democratic Convention 0%
Pan Africanist Congress Of Azania – PAC 1%
Peace And Development Party – PDP 0%
Peace And Justice Congress – PJC 0%
Royal Loyal Progress – RLP 0%
Sindawonye Progressive Party – SPP 0%
South African Communist Party – SACP 1%
United Christian Democratic Party – UCDP 1%
United Democratic Movement – UDM 3%
Vryheidsfront Plus/Freedom Front Plus – VF+ /FF Plus 3%
Ximoko Party – XP 0%
Other Parties 5%

It should be no surprise that MMA’s media monitoring has demonstrated a largely consistent focus in coverage on three political parties across all media monitored.

The ANC received an average of 41% of party coverage, in terms of being sourced for news items. This includes where media report on ANC campaign events showing party representatives speaking. The closet to this figure was received by the newly formed Cope at 20%. At another further drop in attention by media, the DA received 8% and the IFP 6%. The ID, FFP and UDM all received an average of 3% of coverage, and AZAPO 2% of coverage.

ANC

There has already been a great deal of discussion about bias in the media for or against particular parties, including in reports and analysis by the media themselves (in particular, the SABC). An SABC Board member, at recent a public debate on political bias in the SABC, said it was natural for the ruling party to receive a majority share of the attention, and that the higher figure is to be expected and not really debatable (Bheki Khumalo, SABC Board Member, Weekender/Wits Public Debate: Is the SABC biased in its election coverage?, March 11,2009).

While it may be expected that a ruling party, with a significant majority in parliament, would receive more attention in the media during an election period, this does not necessarily mean that the level of coverage is not debatable. The expectation for the ruling party to be the focus of more coverage arises out of the broader role for media to hold government to account on behalf of citizens.

Elections represent the pinnacle of political change in a democracy. While media has a vital role to play in any democracy, it has a particularly important role to fulfil in an election period. Media must navigate between the personal contentions and accusations of the parties to clarify the core issues of principles and policy so that the public is in a position make an informed vote on election day. Greater focus on the ruling party in terms of past performance and future plans is essential to this process.  Citizens should be in a position to determine if the ruling party is capable and prepared to deliver on promises made based on prior performance while in government.

What should receive attention therefore, is not only the level of coverage afforded to any one political party in comparison to others, but the content of the coverage itself.

What is of concern to MMA, and has been regularly noted in our Daily Reports, is the lack of critical engagement with election issues in news coverage. Media, in particular TV and Radio, is showing a tendency to focus on events-based coverage, that is, the electioneering activities of parties, as well as on the personalities of party representatives and conflict between and within parties, primarily ANC and Cope. This is to the detriment of reporting on the proposed policies of the parties, and what actions they are proposing to achieve their goals in response to the needs of South Africans.

It is clear that most South Africans are concerned in general about crime and corruption, poor public service delivery, the HIV/Aids epidemic, and widespread poverty.  Statistics and research reveals more specifically that significant and critical issues exist in access to quality education, health care and treatment, high youth unemployment, and alarming levels of gender-based violence and child-abuse.

Election coverage of political parties has not, for the most part, engaged with these issues and how political parties believe they can and would address them should they become the ruling party in government or achieve seats in parliament. The weekly debate series run by the SABC on Sunday evenings has proved better at facilitating engagement on these issues than most other media. However, debate participants are often allowed to give trite responses on what issues are important to the party, rather than being questioned on what action would be taken to address the issues to indicate knowledge and capacity. Further, audience participants are largely party members, and questions to the panel are posed from these members, as opposed to ordinary members of the public and representatives of civil society. This facilitates parties establishing the content of the debates, at the expense of citizen participation.

In focusing on the electioneering of parties and their representatives, media often ends up only providing citizens with the same information that parties have determined to disseminate. Political parties are being left to set the media coverage agenda and content. In this way, news coverage runs the risk of becoming merely additional free airtime or news space for delivering Political Advertisements, a service parties would normally pay for.

Therefore, while it may be expected that the ANC as the ruling party is the recipient of greater election coverage, this is not justifiable when that coverage does not seek to go beyond event-based reporting, political conflict, or even the scope of Political Advertisements.

Covering all political parties in this way does not assist citizens in making an informed choice based on party responses to issues affecting South Africans. This form of reporting only encourages South African voters to make their decision based on party personalities and sense of affiliation, ungrounded in a demonstration of capacity and concern to address critical issues.

Cope

The next significant point to address is the attention media has devoted to Cope. At an average of 20% across all media monitored, only second to ANC and more than double that of the DA the next largest recipient of attention, it must also be asked if this is reasonable. MMA recognises that the appearance of this new contender from within the ranks of the ANC is interesting news, framed as an alternative to those dissatisfied with the ANC and its chosen representatives, and potentially offering significant implications for the elections’ process and outcome. However, what makes an interesting news item may not necessarily be appropriate to receive the same attention in election coverage.

Cope is a new party, it has no seats in parliament. Thus, it has no history of opposition in parliament, and no prior performance against which it can be assessed. By an extension of the same reasoning that it is logical that the ANC would receive greater coverage by virtue of being the ruling party in government, it should then be more likely to have greater coverage of the DA (47 seats in parliament) and the IFP (23 seats), or even the UDM (6 seats) and the ID (5 seats), for example. Clearly, a different reasoning is being applied to non-ANC parties. Media’s response to the high coverage afforded to Cope has been framed around “news worthiness”.

Under ordinary conditions outside an election period, media set their own news agenda around what is considered “news worthy”, catering to the interests of their audiences as well as what would be of general interest to the public.  This is different to the political concept of “in the public interest”.  This relates to ensuring citizen’s rights are upheld in the workings of a democratic society, in that policy is formed and implemented “in the public interest”, and citizens are informed “in the public interest” in order to effectively participate in decisions and processes that affect them.

During an election period, there is a stronger argument to be made for media to focus more on items that are “in the public interest” including reports that enable citizens to make informed decisions when casting their vote on Election Day, and less on traditional “news worthy” reports that may include information on political parties, politicians and government.  This argument is extended in light of media’s vital role in a democracy, and particularly during elections, around which this report’s analysis is framed. In giving Cope greater attention and therefore a greater voice in its reports, and in providing little information as pertains to proposed policies and actions, media undermines citizens’ right to be fully and fairly informed of all valid choices available to them.

Summary

In summary, concerns around bias in coverage of parties are valid, though perhaps not for the reasons that many have put forward. While it is reasonable to expect the ANC as the ruling party to receive greater attention in news coverage, information that is useful to citizens for enabling informed participation has been few and far between. The coverage has in fact often appeared as an extension of Political Advertisements, and should therefore be far more limited in number and extent. This argument can also be extended to the attention received by other parties, with coverage exhibiting a bias towards the new party Cope at the expense of other more established parties. However, quality in coverage has perhaps been better in reports on parties other than the ANC and Cope, with more information about policies being proposed to address issues of concern. This could be because the “news worthy” stories around personalities and party conflict appear to have been largely restricted to the ANC and Cope.

—Tanya Owen

See the full list of media reviewed for this report

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